Thomas Hoving, who died yesterday in Manhattan at 78, ran the Metropolitan Museum of Art for just ten years. When he took over in 1967, the Great Hall was a dark (even grimy) gray, and the place had an academic-library vibe. By the time he left in 1977, the Met was part of the city’s tourist-entertainment complex, as much a destination as Lincoln Center or the Empire State Building. And Hoving was its Florenz Ziegfeld — the impresario who stood outside saying, “C’mon! You’ve got to see this!” Except that once he coaxed you in, Hoving would deploy his art-history doctorate, delivering a furiously entertaining discourse on the greatness of, say, the twelfth-century ivory cross of Bury St. Edmunds, or an Egyptian relief of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, or El Greco’s View of Toledo. What Julia Child did for American dining, Hoving did for museum-going: Both sought out great stuff, stripped off the veneer of inaccessibility, and hammed it up just enough to persuade you it was worth giving a whirl.
Hoving was also a madman, and of a specific type: the utterly fearless, patrician vulgarian. I spoke with him once, ten years ago, when I was working on the thirtieth-anniversary issue of New York, and to this day, I’ve never heard anyone so unguarded with an unfamiliar reporter. I had called him out of the blue — he was in the phone book! — and after barely a moment’s prompting, he reeled off a hugely entertaining series of anecdotes, shot through with unnervingly loud laughs and every possible variation of the word “fuck.” (I should mention here that his father, Walter Hoving, had been the head of Tiffany & Co., and is probably best remembered for writing a slim book called Table Manners for Teenagers, which is still in print.)
It took that loose-cannon fearlessness to shake up the Met, and good god, did he shake it. Those banners down the façade, advertising major exhibits? They’re Hoving’s splashy, classy innovation, as are the blockbuster shows they advertise. He really nailed down the form when he helped negotiate “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” the show that looped its way around America in 1977 and 1978, winding up at the Met. The Tut show changed everything. It had promotional tie-ins of every kind, from books to tote bags to hieroglyphics-printed percale bedsheets. People traveled to come see it. And it got 1.3 million visitors in four months. (Annual attendance for the whole museum, B.H. — Before Hoving — was around 2 million.)
And here’s the backstory of the Tut exhibit, in Hoving’s own words, from that long-ago interview. (I can’t say for sure, because my unexpurgated notes are long gone, but I seem to remember cutting twenty or so expletives from this quote to get it past my editor.) “I first didn’t want it,” Hoving told me. “It was the idea of Richard Nixon himself — the Soviets had had it and he wanted to say ‘Egypt is our friend.’ And I just said, Gimme a break! Then my [board] president, C. Douglas Dillon, gave me a call, saying he’d had a very annoyed conversation with Kissinger at a dinner party, and that if I didn’t do this, they were gonna tow my car everywhere I parked, they were gonna go through my taxes — they’d find something. So I said okay.”